Cheers for Speer
Mix one part Parisian bistro with one part American diner and voilà! Philip Speer’s Bonhomie.
I swear, I’m not stalking you!” I said to chef Philip Speer as I appeared at the door of his new restaurant for the third time in a week. He seemed unconvinced. And much as I hated to admit it, he had a right to be: I had become slightly obsessed with his French American diner, Bonhomie. But how could I not? It was a half mile from my house, and I had immediately found it way too easy to drop by on my way home for a petite arugula salad and a scandalously rich croque monsieur drenched in Mornay sauce. Or to take a lunch break and zip over for a medium-rare double cheeseburger with dijonnaise and melty American cheese.
Bonhomie—pronounced “Bah-na-me” and meaning “good cheer”—is the latest restaurant from the 39-year-old chef. Many people in Austin think of Speer primarily as a pastry wizard, thanks to his ten years with the Uchi group making wild concoctions like maple pudding with tobacco cream and Scotch whisky gel. He also helped open Bank Jean-Georges in Houston and Jean-Luc’s French Bistro in Austin. Some three years ago he departed from the upscale arena, starting unevenly with St. Philip Pizza Parlor but regrouping earlier this year with a cool little downtown coffee and breakfast/lunch trailer called My Name Is Joe. And since early spring, he has hit his stride with Bonhomie, where he still does pastry but has moved big-time into savory, as they say in the food biz. His timing is on point, because French restaurants seem to be having a bit of a moment; witness Signature in San Antonio and Brasserie du Parc in Houston, plus upcoming Bullion in Dallas and Le Politique in Austin. But the key to Bonhomie is that it’s not totally focused on French. Instead Speer has hit a brilliant sweet spot somewhere between—don’t laugh, these are his own words—a Parisian bistro and Waffle House.
Bonhomie debuted in March, after multiple delays and much curiosity in the Austin dining community. But for all the hoopla, when you walk into the space at the bottom of a large retail-residential building, it doesn’t feel like a restaurant that has been on all the “anticipated” lists. It seems low-key and easygoing. It feels like you can come as you are (well, please change clothes if you’ve been working in the yard). The large white room is spare, decorated with a few contemporary photographs and outfitted with booths upholstered in red. Around back is a U-shaped bar where you can sip a cocktail or eat a full meal. Up front is an open kitchen. The bistro/diner split personality manifests itself in the service as well as the food. On the one hand, a sommelier is available to advise on the well-priced, twenty-item wine list. On the other hand, you can hear short-order slang bouncing around the kitchen: “Fire burger, overcooked, no bun, no fun!” (“Cook a burger well done, gluten-free, no cheese!”). There’s also a notable lack of attitude from the servers. When we asked about the pommes rosti, our waitress put on her best Texas accent and said, “Well, hon, we just call ’em hash browns.”
And speaking of pommes, you definitely want to order at least one of the six variations. And the one you want to try first, in my opinion, is the version with generous dollops of homemade applesauce and Greek yogurt. It appears on your table in the form of a nest of skinny-cut fries, crunchy on the outside and semisoft in the center. It’s fun dipping and nibbling while you decide what else you want. If you were to ask me for advice drawn from my multiple visits, one of my first choices would be the salmon cru, nice-sized cubes of pristine raw fish with chunky sweet cantaloupe and blood orange in citrus vinaigrette (unless I’m badly mistaken, the dish is a tip of the hat to Speer’s old home base, Uchi). Then I would go for the buttery bistro steak, which is an inexpensive lean cut known as bavette in France and flap steak in America. It comes on top of terrific ratatouille (I know—words you don’t often see in the same sentence), a garlicky mélange of not-cooked-to-mush eggplant, sweet peppers, and zucchini. (I’m less taken with the steak’s garnish of thick panko-breaded onion rings, which seem clunky and a little out of character.) After the steak, I would order the devil’s food cake to finish. With four thin, moist layers separated by whipped chocolate ganache, it has a decidedly French accent. But with scoops of icy-sweet milk sherbet on top, it also echoes that all-American after-school snack, chocolate cake with a glass of milk.
If you can bear to skip the pommes rosti on your next visit, you should start with the gnocchi parisienne in brown butter. Far from the usual rubbery potato-based gnocchi, these are little clouds fashioned from cream-puff dough and gilded in brown butter. Tempting as it might be to try a fish dish, I would skip the loup de mer filet, which has been thin and a little overcooked on two occasions, and go instead for the juicy, crispy skinned rotisserie chicken. It comes with cassoulet, but a fun additional side is Tunisian-style baby carrots, roasted al dente, sparked with cumin, and cooled with yogurt. For dessert, I would definitely choose the mille-feuille, with chicory cream and lemon curd piped between sheets of crunchy, well-browned puff pastry. It’s one of the most French desserts on the menu, but I got a kick out of it because it echoed another all-American favorite: s’mores.
And when I think about it, maybe the notion of French s’mores sums up what I like so much about Bonhomie. It’s classy without being snobbish, novel but not bizarre. The menu strikes a balance of comfort and creativity that is rare these days. “We will have a few specials to keep it interesting and new,” said Speer, “but we want to keep our core menu, so people can count on their favorite dishes and will come back several times a month or even a week.” Funny thing. I seem to be doing that already.